17 Electronic Instruments that Shaped Modern Music

Explore the enviable collection of classic synths and samplers shown in the "Good Vibrations. History of electronic music instruments" special exhibition.

EMS VCS3 synthesizer (2020) by Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd.Original Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum

Berlin’s Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Musical Instrument Museum) is home to thousands of historically significant instruments dating back to the 16th century. Synthesizer enthusiasts will find some stunning electronic artefacts among all the violins, harpsichords, and flutes of the permanent exhibition. But for the "Good Vibrations" special exhibit, the museum expanded the collection far and wide to fully represent the diversity of electronic musical instruments.

Here, we explore some highlights from this exhibition, and uncover the vital role that they played in the history of electronic music.

Fairlight CMIOriginal Source: Fairlight US inc Photo Archive

Fairlight CMI
Digital sound creation, editing, and sound storage were first explored in early computers, but the first purpose-built digital sampling instrument was the Fairlight Computer Music Instrument, created in 1979. Using microprocessors, the Fairlight was better able to shift the pitch of sounds than anything that came before. The Fairlight came with a 6-octave keyboard, but could also be controlled with a special light pen that enabled musicians to draw waveforms directly on its monitor.

Herbie Hancock in Sesame Street (1983)Original Source: YouTube

The Fairlight CMI’s exorbitant price tag made it unobtainable for average musicians, but it was famously used by recording artists including Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Herbie Hancock.

Iconic Synthesizers – Moog ModularOriginal Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: schnepp renou)

Moog Modular
Comprised of a series of – components that produce or process sound in various ways, connected by  cables to create different configurations – the Moog (rhymes with vogue) Modular was the first synthesizer to make a serious impact on pop music in the 1960s. The ability to connect and rearrange a full complement of waveform oscillators, filters, and modulators paved the way for modular synthesis as we know it today.

Moog System 55 Modular Synthesizer ImprovisationOriginal Source: YouTube

Designed with input from musicians such as Wendy Carlos, the Moog Modular was the primary instrument immortalized on her Switched On Bach, which went on to become the first certified platinum classical album, earning three Grammys in the process. It can also be heard on record from legendary bands such as the Beatles, the Doors, Herbie Hancock, and the Rolling Stones.

Minimoog Model DOriginal Source: Minimoog, Foto: schnepp renou

Moog Minomoog
First released in 1971, the Minimoog packed all the punch of classic Moog circuit designs – which until then had been trapped in behemoth studio instruments – into a reasonably portable design with a shortened 44-note keyboard. Projected sales were low, but the Minimoog soon became many a keyboardist’s best friend, enabling them to play thick bass lines, create psychedelic sound effects, and perform soaring leads too.

Its characteristically rich tone was the result of a slight detuning that inherent to the oscillator design, while the low-pass resonant filter quickly became renowned for its “fat” and “juicy” sound.

Minimoog Bass KlängeOriginal Source: YouTube

Sought-after and emulated to this day, the Minimoog filter circuit led to the prototypical funk bass made famous by Parliament. Also featured prominently on records by Stevie Wonder, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Abba, Giorgio Moroder, and many more, it’s fair to say the Minimoog changed the direction of popular music.

Iconic Synthesizers – Buchla 200 Music Easel (1972) by Don BuchlaOriginal Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: schnepp renou)

Buchla Music Easel
In contrast to Moog’s approach, which successfully aimed to make synthesis accessible to ordinary musicians, Don Buchla sought to to liberate synthesized sound from the constraints of conventional musical rules.

His Music Easel is a great example of this philosophy. Controlled by metal plates, optical sensors, and randomizable sequencers, it could generate dynamic melodies without a musician playing notes at all.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith Buchla Music EaselOriginal Source: YouTube

The Music Easel is featured prominently on classic synthesizer records by early adopter Suzanne Ciani and, more recently, acclaimed compositions from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith.

Iconic Synthesizers – EMS VCS 3Original Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: schnepp renou)

One of the first synthesizers priced within reach of normal musicians, EMS released the VCS 3 in 1969. With unstable tuning and no keyboard included, it was initially relegated to creating bizarre and psychedelic sound effects rather than explicitly melodic contributions. Nevertheless, it was embraced by prog rock luminaries such as King Crimson, Hawkwind, and The Alan Parsons Project.

Iconic Synthesizers – EMS Synthi AKSOriginal Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: schnepp renou)

EMS Synthi AKS
The company went on to release the Synthi AKS in 1972, which included a sequencer and keyboard for enhanced playability. Its unique signal-chain editing via patch-pin matrix was famously used by Brian Eno to create expressive tones of his own – and process Robert Fripp’s guitar in previously unheard ways.

On The Run – Pink FloydOriginal Source: YouTube

The AKS is used throughout Jean-Michel Jarre’s seminal Oxygene, but was perhaps most famously used on Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side Of The Moon cut, On The Run.

Iconic Synthesizers – LyriconOriginal Source: Wikimedia

Produced by Computone in 1972, the Lyricon was the world’s first electronic wind instrument. Using a clarinet mouthpiece and a clever array of sensors, it was able to translate a musician’s breath into notes via a process known as additive synthesis. While it never truly caught on, the Lyricon influenced subsequent generations of electronic wind instruments, including Yamaha’s WX-series which, with the advent of MIDI, allowed players to expressively control nearly any type of sound.

Michal Urbaniak plays Lyricon with heavy duty drummer Billy CobhamOriginal Source: YouTube

Played by saxophonists and clarinetists such as Roland Kirk, Steve Jolliffe, Wayne Shorter, and Yusef Lateef, the Lyricon opened synthesis up to non-keyboardists. Here, Polish jazz musician Michael Urbaniak demonstrates its range.

Iconic Synthesizers – Casio VL1Original Source: Wikimedia

Casio VL-1
Highly portable and priced for the mass market, Casio’s VL-1 combined a monophonic (one-note-at-a-time) synthesizer, a sequencer, a built-in speaker, and even a calculator. Using a rudimentary implementation of pulse waves at varying widths, it became known for its characteristic lo-fi sound. A basic LCD and 29 note-entry buttons allowed for very basic programming, while the VL-1’s built-in drum module came with 10 preset rhythms constructed from only three sounds.

Trio - Da Da Da (Official Video)Original Source: YouTube

Geared more towards novice users than professional musicians, this cheap and kitschy unit nevertheless earned a place in music history, with its preset beats featured in hit songs by Deee-Lite, Vengaboys, and Fergie, and synth presets appearing in tunes from the likes of XTC and even Lady Gaga.

Iconic Synthesizers – SynclavierOriginal Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: Annkatrin Breitenborn)

Originally released in 1977, The Synclavier was the first synthesizer to make additive and FM synthesis available outside of a research laboratory. Uniquely, for the time, it required a program loaded from floppy disk to function. What initially appeared to be a limitation, actually proved useful – by connecting a computer instead of the default disk, synthesists could program all manner of unique sounds themselves with just a few lines of code.

Synclavier II (1981)Original Source: YouTube

Known for its flexibility and power, the Synclavier was adopted by many of the world’s most important recording studios, appearing prominently on records from Chick Corea, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Michael Jackson, and Duran Duran to name just a few.

Iconic Synthesizers – Prophet 10Original Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: Annkatrin Breitenborn))

Sequential founder Dave Smith remains a titan of synthesizer design to this day, and the Prophet-10 was one of his masterworks. With the earlier Prophet-5, he successfully created the first polyphonic synthesizer with the ability to store user presets; based on that design, the Prophet-10 expanded the polyphony to 10 voices and a whopping 20 oscillators, along with a dual-keyboard design.

Several other synths of the era boasted similar sonic potential, but their lack of a preset-saving system meant sounds could only be recalled by laboriously returning all the knobs and sliders to the exact position they were in before.

Prophet 10 Synthesizer DemonstrationOriginal Source: YouTube

The Prophet series is known for its thick low end, lush pads, and razor-sharp leads capable of cutting through nearly any mix. Sought after by producers to this day, they have have appeared on records by everyone from John Carpenter to Tangerine Dream, Michael Jackson, and Madonna – as well as contemporary stars like Radiohead and Dr. Dre.

Iconic Synthesizers – Linn DrumOriginal Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: Annkatrin Breitenborn)

It may seem foolish today to think that drum machines could render human drummers extinct, but Roger Linn’s eponymous drum machine sparked no small amount of controversy upon its release in the early 1980s. Compared to the primitive, artificial-sounding drum machines that preceded it, the sample-based LinnDrum produced eerily convincing approximations of a flesh-and-blood percussionist.

Phil Collins and LinnDrumOriginal Source: YouTube

With a programmable sequencer, built-in mixer, and individual outputs for each drum layer, the LinnDrum was embraced by studios, and went on to define an era of popular music, appearing on records from Madonna, Tears For Fears, and Franky Goes To Hollywood. Linn’s follow-up drum machine, the LM-1, was famously used by Prince throughout his heyday.

Iconic Synthesizers – TR 808Original Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: schnepp renou)

Roland 303, 808, and 909
With poor initial sales, these analog bassist and drummer replacements from Japan’s Roland Corporation were regarded by the company as a near-complete bust. Today, however, it’s clear that few instruments have had a greater impact on the sound of popular music.

Roland TB-303 and TR-606 Jam - Acid VisionOriginal Source: YouTube

Once a common sight in the pawn shops of Chicago and Detroit, the 303 was adopted by pioneers such as Phuture and Juan Atkins, who pushed its unique resonant filter to its limits and spawned the unmistakable sound known today as Acid.

10 classic Roland TR-808 PatternsOriginal Source: YouTube

Meanwhile, the broken beat genres of Electro, Miami Bass, and more recently, Trap, simply wouldn’t exist without the 808 drum machine and its subsonic bass drum, snappy snare, and sizzling hi-hats.

Jeff Mills Exhibitionist 2 Mix 3Original Source: YouTube

Finally, the sound of the 909 is almost synonymous with techno and house: its punchy kick drum came to define club music for decades, while 909 snares and hi-hats remain ubiquitous in many genres today. Here, Detroit legend Jeff Mills delivers a techno masterclass with – quite literally – nothing but a 909.

Yamaha DX-7Original Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: schnepp renou)

Yamaha DX7
Previously the domain of academic researchers (or those rare few who could afford a Synclavier), digital FM synthesis finally became available to the masses with the launch of Yamaha’s DX7 in 1983 – which went on to become one of the best selling synthesizers of all time. Notoriously difficult to program, the DX7 rewarded those dedicated enough to try with inharmonic, otherworldly, and glassy tones that analog synthesizers simply couldn’t replicate.

Yamaha – DX7Original Source: YouTube

Brian Eno was one of the first popular musicians to fully realise the sound-design potential of the DX7, but its pre-set sounds can be heard on era-defining records by everyone from A-ha and Kool & The Gang to Whitney Houston and Phil Collins.

Iconic Synthesizers – E-mu Emulator IIOriginal Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: schnepp renou)

E-mu Emulator
Released in 1981, the Emulator was one of the first sampler instruments to save sounds onto a floppy disk for future re-use. This allowed producers, artists, and studios to share sounds with each other, and created a market for sample libraries. The Emulator II was released to widespread acclaim in 1984, with improved sound quality, more flexible editing, distinctively “creamy” 4-pole filters, and enhanced real-time control that made it a more expressive musical instrument.

West End Girls Instrumental cover versionMusikinstrumenten-Museum

Throughout the ‘80s, the Emulator series brought sampling to mainstream music production in earnest, appearing on numerous film scores and hit records from Peter Gabriel, the Pet Shop Boys, Talking Heads, Stevie Nicks, and Depeche Mode.

E-mu SP 1200Original Source: Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Foto: schnepp renou)

E-mu SP-1200
Later in the 1980s, E-Mu released the SP-1200, which packed sampling and sequencing capabilities into a portable package with a distinctively gritty sound. It gave home-producers the ability to produce an entire track using sampled material, freeing them from the financial constraints of commercial studios. Despite limited sampling time, the SP-1200 featured separate outputs, robust MIDI, and an onboard sequencer capable of storing 100 patterns, 100 songs, and up to 5000 notes.

Ice Cube E-muOriginal Source: YouTube

The SP-1200 was originally designed for dance music, but it was hip-hop producers who first recognized its true potential. The gritty sound of the SP-1200 can be heard all over records from the Beastie Boys, NWA, and Public Enemy.

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